The attention hogs have demanded more sharing of their photos.

Following up on the previous entry, the winter peonies at Yuushien insisted on more photos to show off a little more of their splendor. In addition to the usual year-round displays of color and shape and winter peonyscapes with woven huts to protect them from snow, there is also a temporary exhibition on display until 3/31/2014 that is a collaboration between Holland’s imaginative and futuristic gardener Nico Wissing and Japan’s green magician Kazuyuki Ishihara.

Without further ado, enjoy Shimane’s prefectural flower, famous among peony enthusiasts around the world:

I’ve got a lovely bunch of peonies, there they are a’standing in a row. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your—oh, who I am kidding, there are no small ones.

What do you get for venturing outside on a day like this? You get wet, that’s what.

Yuushien Garden is located on Daikonshima (otherwise known as the Yatsuka district of Matsue–now where have we heard that name before?), a island on Nakaumi, a brackish lake between Shimane and Tottori. When I hear “Yuushien” I think peonies. Okay, so sometimes I think of ginseng too, but I mostly think of peonies. After all, the sight and scent of 30,000 of them floating in the pond while thousands more were on display around the rest of the garden (and the rest of the island) was an unforgetable experience.

While no season can compare to full season, there are peonies blooming all year round at this garden, and the winter peonies (kan-botan) are a special sight from December through February. While peonies in Flower Language (hanakotoba) can mean royal style, riches and honor, pompousness, and (surprisingly) shyness, the winter peonies in particular have a noble, high class association. At Yuushien, these seasonal peonies have their own little straw huts to protect them from the weight of snow, and photographers flock to capture the bright blossoms against the white landscape.

I had no such luck. We had snowglobe like days during the week, but my Sunday at Yuushien was rain, rain, rain, rain.

I didn’t get to see the snowy scenery and rain is certainly not my favorite weather, but it did give me a very different view of the garden than I had only a very sunny, very crowded day last May during Golden Week (right around the height of the peony season). Rain brings out the textures in the garden landscape, especially in the ponds, moss, and volcanic rock that Daikonshima is made out of (and that’s why its soil is so good for peonies and ginseng).

Despite the general subdued tones of winter, there were still very vibrant, impressive peonies. In my years of studying East Asian cultures I have frequently heard them referred to like the Queen of the Flowers, and the Queen enjoys her spotlight in any weather. But, my dear Queen, there are so many other little things to notice in the sleepy garden winters! Can’t you let them have a little spotlight, too?

No? You really insist on photobombing, don’t you?

Setting the royal flower aside for a moment, let’s take a look at some of the rest of the rainy day views Yuushien provides in February.

Alright, Your Elegance, you haunty, flower, you! There will be more photos in your honor coming soon.

In the meantime, I’ll just wrap up with a statue we interpreted thus.

In my ongoing pursuit of the Japanese arts, I finally got to try out ikebana: flower arranging. You might have guessed from my onslaught of flower viewing posts last spring that I like flowers, but I’ve never done ikebana, save the one time Tea-sensei received some difficult to use by very pretty wild flowers, and let me have a go at trying to arrange them. She always reinforces that in tea (or at least the omotesenke school), you always try to arrange the flowers like how they’d appear in nature. Not so for the Sogetsu school of flower arranging, though it was Tea-sensei who introduced me to Flower-sensei.

The sogetsu school makes arrangements based on three major supporting elements which, for beginners, are at certain points and angles and lengths. There is lots of flexibility as you go on, though. I brought along my partner in the arts Tanya, my Russian CIR friend, but it turns out she’s already studied sogetsu before and was way ahead of me! I started by trying to keep it as close to as Flower-sensei instructed me.

When using a wide, open bowl, you stick the stems on a spiked tool called a kenzan.

Sometimes you have to be a little forceful when stabbing flower stems.

Flower-sensei prepared two types of flowers for us to work with: beniaoi and snapdragons.

Beniaoi (紅葵) is a mallow plant. I couldn’t find any Flower Language associated with it.

I finally see why these are called snapdragons in English! However, in Japanese, they are kingyosou, literally “goldfish grass” (金魚草). It can signify a range of meanings, such as a pure heart, foresight, shamelessness, an intrusive person, or “if I had to guess, the answer is NO.”

To my disappointment, Hanakotoba (Flower Language) is pretty much ignored in both sogetsu and in omotesenke. That makes sense because Japan didn’t start obsessing with this until receiving Victorian England’s flower language influence, and most people don’t really know trivial stuff like this. It’s still used a lot in manga and anime, though, and as a fan of shoujo manga I enjoy the extra level of meaning they can add when plastered all over a page. Too bad we can’t all walk around with giant flowers floating behind us to express our feelings sometimes.

Following the most basic guidelines of sogetsu, I completed my first creation!

Meanwhile, Tanya had already completed a piece according to the instructions, and had begun showing off.

So I got a little more creative with mine too, albeit still rather conservative.

Yes, I purposely placed those fallen snap dragons, there! It evokes a sense of impermanence, or something artsy like that. Flower-sensei dusted them out of the way to take her own picture, though. Tanya was more creative and used a fallen snapdragon as a hat for a beniaoi pod.

I appreciate all of my sensei’s patience with me as I try out various art forms, and Flower-sensei was no exception. After finishing up with the flowers, we just hung out in the studio to chat, and as is typical in Japanese hospitality, there was tea and snacks. I was just really surprised by one of them–I’ve seen sugary dried fruits as treats before, but I had never seen bitter melon in a sweet, dried form! I hate this bumpy and appropriately named produce, but I love sweets, so I was more than happy to try it.

Nope. Still bitter. But it was worth a shot.

A few weeks after this delightful little taiken (a very handy word for just “trying it out” and “getting the experience”), I visited Matsue’s industrial high school. At these kinds of trade schools, many students pick up applicable labor or business skills to go straight into job searching as opposed to university, though some go on to enter university programs in architecture or engineering or the like. I had visited them last year as well to listen to their senior project presentations and have a discussion with them, but this year we switched things up a bit by attending their research classes with them a couple times before hearing about their final projects (it was fun to spent more time getting to know them this year!).

One group of students was working on some kind of concrete that can sustain plant life. Or is it cement? I have to confess I know very little about this, though thanks to a college roommate’s very enthusiastic lecture she once gave me on the concrete/cement she made, I at least know there’s a lot of thought that goes into it getting the right combination of ingredients. As part of the ingredients, the students were using ashes from shijimi clam shells (seeing as Lake Shinji is famous for abundant shijimi) and sawdust, and after making the concrete/cement soaked them in water, and then did water tests to see how well they could support life. Unfortunately, not as always as well as they hoped.

Once they had something that wasn’t going to be toxic, they tried out raising different kinds of plants on it. Little seedlings had trouble taking root and didn’t last long, but the moss did alright. The day I joined them, they were doing an ikebana experiment: how well can the concrete/cement support cut flowers?

We collected clippings around the campus, then drilled little holes in the soft concrete/cement to stick our flowers in. There were no rules to abide by, but with sogestu fresh in my mind, I used some of that for inspiration.

The students trusted their instincts instead:

Some flowers wilted within a couple weeks, but others were still doing well a good six weeks later! Sogetsu only started in 1927, so I wonder if concrete ikebana will catch on and be a new style? Or if it’s already being done…?

January in Japan is full of firsts, often signified by the prefix hatsu (初). Among tea practicioners, the first tea ceremony of the year is one of the most festive, and is called Hatsugama (初釜), literally, “first kettle.” Having started practicing the tea ceremony last April, this was my first Hatsugama. Not only that, but it was my first time preparing the tea outside of regular practices.

My omotesenke school had ours on the 18th with 18 participants, and in a city like Matsue where the matcha flows like the canals that trace their way around town, I can imagine we were not the first. It seems a lot of places were booked out the previous weekend, but we held ours in the Matsue Club, overlooking the Ohashi river that bisects the north and south sides of town.

I had passed by this building many times before while walking alongside the river, but like many spaces in Japan, I had never imagined how much bigger it was on the inside. They even had a tsukubai set up next to the tea room. Trivial Japanese time! The tsukubai (蹲), the stone wash basin found in Japanese gardens, is so-called because you need to crouch down (tsukubau 蹲う) next to it.

After cleansing, we greeted each other and entered the tea room.

Can you spot the two CIRs?

The day started with preparing the charcoal for the fire under the kettle. During this part of the ceremony, all the guests sit closely so as to observe how the different kinds of charcoal are arranged to prepare the fire, and what a pleasing red glow they have to warm us up during one of the coldest months of the year.

This was followed by okoicha, the highest grade of matcha prepared to about the thickness of paint. This is shared among three guests or so at a time. While the tea master is preparing the tea, the guests partake of a wagashi (Japanese confections). In the case of omotesenke, New Year sweets are green on the inside and white on the outside, like pine branches covered in snow.

Note the “Yanagiwa” next to the scroll. This is a ring made of willow branches, one of many festive New Year decorations. Gold and silver are also indicative of New Years, and we used heavy gold-painted tea cups for the thick tea.

Following okoicha, we changed some tools and decorations out to get ready for o-usu, the thinner style of matcha that is more commonly consumed–and, thus far, the only kind I know how to prepare. Speaking of preparation…

Setting my tools in place.

Sporting my “I’m trying really hard to look relaxed” face.

I’m about to take the whisk I just cleansed out of the tea cup, which is why it is vertical. In Omotosenke, we whisk it diagonally instead of vertically.

Now to bring in the tea.

I wonder how the tea I made tasted?
Note the kan-botan in the decorative alcove. These are winter peonies, and peonies are big stuff here in Shimane.

I don’t think I made any major mistakes, but it felt like it went by really fast! Given the number of participants, the tea-making responsibilities are split up among a handful of people so I only did the first part of the ceremony before switching out with a few other relative beginners, but although it wasn’t as smooth as I would have liked and I felt nervous, I think it was a success (I’m feeling a little more self-conscious after seeing the photos, though!). I wonder how many more chances I’ll get like this throughout 2014? There’s still nine months to prepare for the Dai-Chakai at Matsue Castle…

After the two types of tea ceremonies, we started our kaiseki meal (though this would usually be eaten before drinking tea). Kaiseki can refer to any sophisticated Japanese meal served in courses, and I’ve enjoyed a number of kaiseki meals at restaurants and ryokan around Matsue for fancy work parties, but this was my first time receiving it in tea ceremony style.

Thankfully I had a teacher sitting near me to explain all the steps as we went along, and though we were all fairly relaxed since most of us are classmates who are already acquainted with each other, there was a higher level of formality than I’ve ever had at a work-party (which I already find amusingly formal before the sake starts flowing. Speaking of, there was plenty of sake at this tea party, too).

I did my best, but I could not stay in seiza for very long by that point. My knees still need more training! If I take part in Hatsugama 2015, it will serve as a good comparison for how much better I get over the course of this year.

I’m ready, 2014! Bring on more matcha!

It had a bit of a late start here, but tsuyu–the rainy season–is now upon us. Gray through the days are and uncontrollable though my hair is in all the humidity, there is a bright highlight to this season: ajisai, aka Hydrangea. These were some of the first flowers to be taken from Japan to Holland for study, however they were quite surprised when the deep blue flowers they saw in Japan grow into a firey pink once they planted them at home. This is because hydrangea have different colors depending on the pH level of the soil. Acidic soil will lead to blue flowers and alkaline soil will lead to pink flowers, but there is any range of blues and pinks and purples and whites in between.

This flower also has numerous possible meanings in modern hanakotoba (the language of flowers), some of which make sense with the color-changing tendancies: Capriciousness, arrogance, a persevering love, an energetic girl, ruthlessness, wantonness, a boastful person, betrayal, or even “you’re cold” or “you’re beautiful, but so cold!” Just by looking at this collection of meanings I can just imagine what kind of romance they might signify.

Of course, flower language isn’t a terribly old thing in Japan–it has a lot of its roots in Victorian flower language, so it’s taken on a lot of those meanings since Westernization. This native Asian shrub has been brightening the rainy season for centuries, and is the flower of choice to decorate the graves of the Matsudaira clan in Matsue.

Gesshouji is known as the hydrangea temple of the San’in region, and is is where the feudal lords who ruled over Matsue for 10 generations (following the short-lived Horio and Kyogoku ruling clans) are buried. The first of this Matsudaira line, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu‘s own grandson Naomasa, ordered Gesshouji named in honor of his mother who is buried there as well. Naomasa’s is the largest grave there, but the 7th generation lord, Harusato (aka tea-loving Lord Fumai), also has a rather will decorated grave, and a special grave for used tea whisks. A ceremony is head every April on the anniversary of Fumai’s death to bury the used tea whisks and thank them for their service.

The other Matsudaira lords are also buried through the foresty temple, which each grave decorated in its own unique ways (including special motifs for Fumai’s lesser-known sake-loving son).

Tranquil though it is, the graves are hundreds of years old, so as I was observing the flourishing hydrangea…

…my peaceful state of mind was quite suddenly interupted by a mis-step.

Had anyone had witnessed it I’m sure they would have laughed at my face.

But enough about me. How about more hydrangea?

There is plenty more to say about this temple than just one post will justify. It’s best just to see it for yourself–they provide an English guide, as well as tea and wagashi (how could they not with Fumai buried there?), and a small museum of Matsudaira clan artifacts. That, and my camera ran out of battery just before I sat down to tea this time. This kind of atmosphere, thick with the scent of flowers and rain, is best enjoyed in person, is it not?

Of course, this entry doesn’t even begin to touch on Gesshouji’s most fearsome ghostly residents… that is a story for another time.

He’s waiting quietly… and I think he may be grouchy because of that.

Surely we should be done with snow by now, right? What is this stuff!?

It’s mid-may around Matsue Castle, as spring is practically running to summer now. First there were plum blossoms, then came camellia, then cherry blossoms, then azalea and peonies, and now it appears something else is waking up in the warm weather.

But this is a rather unusually fleecy tree. What could it be? That’s what many people wanted to know back when it was introduced to Japan, leading to its common name, nanjyamonjya (or nanjamonja by more common romanization), which I’ve chosen to translate as “what-the-tree-is-this” to try to capture the tone of this questioning name. They are rather rare, with Matsue Castle being one of only eight spots around Japan that have them. Its proper name is hitotsubatago (Chinese fringe tree), but nanjyamonjya is much more fun.

I overheard a conversation between a mother and a boy who looked around 4-years-old or so.
Mother: This is a “nanjyamonjya.”
Boy: Really!? There are ninja here!??
Mother: No, I don’t think there are any today… ah, no! It’s nanjyamonjya, not ninja-monjya!

Considering the cover and shade these trees provide, though, I wouldn’t be surprised.

It turns out there were ninja and samurai up by the castle tower at that time, but this is completely normal. Matsue Castle is not only a tourist location, but it’s a rather social part of town where anyone can take a walk, enjoy the flowers and some dango, and walk their dogs.

Or take pictures of their dogs.

Or walk their prairie dogs??

Back on topic, the nanjyamonjya at Matsue Castle were a gift from Mr. Sugisaka, a former resident of Matsue, who sent them from Korea in 1940. They are noted for their snow-like (or beard-like?) petals, and the ones at Matsue Castle (found near by the main entrance to Matsue Castle as well as in the plum garden) are known for having somewhat longer flowers than the others mostly planted on shrines in other parts of Japan.

They have some fragrance, but it can be hard to detect. While searching for the scent, I also found that these flowers tickle. Since these trees are somewhat rare, enjoy some more pictures!

Note the Yamabushi (mountain warrior) with deer horns, as well as the gender balance.

A perfectly nice Sunday in Matsue, and not unusually, there are warriors walking about the castle area. Also, stopping into Kiharu in the history museum for some tea and wagashi is just as pleasant as usual.

Around this time in spring, purple is in season. In addition to irises along the castle moats throughout the city, western Japan is also covered in blooming wisteria. I had always imagined them only being vines covering archways in gardens, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see they grow as tall as cottonwoods in the wild.

You might be surprised to have your tea and inspired confection experience interrupted by the sounds of gunfire. Gunfire in Japan!? Nothing to take cover from, it’s just the Teppo-dan, Matsue’s rifle group that practices rifle use according to how it was practiced in the Edo era. They perform demonstrations at special events throughout the year, but you can also catch them for free at the history museum courtyard.

Seeing as this is was simply one part of martial arts training for the samurai class, the group is armed with not only rifles (gunpowder only), but also swords. Sessions begin with a little sword practice.

After that, they move into displaying a few different gunfire formations.

This formation is called “Chidori-uchi”, which could be interpreted as either being arranged like a plover in flight, or shooting plovers. Either way, it seems fitting for Matsue since Matsue Castle is nicknamed Chidori-jo (Plover Castle) for it’s wing-like shachihoko (decorative fish) at the top of the roof, the largest in Japan.

The length of the performances may be weather dependant, but they typically perform at 10:00am and 2:00pm on the third Sunday of every month. According to one of the group members, this may also be one of the only places in Japan with all-female groups putting on displays sometimes, too. They practice elsewhere outside of the city center, and if anyone who lives here is interested enough, I’m sure they’d be excited to bring on beginners.

Another flower post as promised!

Yuushien is one of the most famous gardens in the San’in region (though the most famous would have to be the one at the Adachi Museum of Art located in nearby Yasugi). It is a Japanese-style garden for all seasons; a quiet space to listen to the sounds of the waterfalls, observe the seasonal trees and flowers, feed the fish, and collect your thoughts. That is, unless you go during Golden Week.

It’s not by simple coincidence that iris (aka “sweet flag”) season lines up with Golden Week. Read more on Fumiyaen‘s insightful blog.

Yuushien is located on Daikonshima (otherwise known as the Yatsuka district of Matsue), a island on Nakaumi, a brackish lake between Shimane and Tottori. It used to be a town of its own, and there is a unique dialect spoken only on that island with some influence from the surrounding Mihonoseki Peninsula, Sakaiminato, and general Izumo dialect. It was formed from volcanic rock and you can explore underground lava trails, and those familiar with Japanese cuisine will probably notice that it literally means “giant radish island” (大根島). While I’m sure they probably grow somewhere around there, the island is not actually known for daikon radishes.

Rather, the island was recorded in the 8th century Chronicles of Ancient Izumo as “octopus island” (’takoshima’ たこ島)(though this probably had more to do with someone bringing an octopus to the island than there actually being octopus in Nakaumi–squid are more popular around here!). It was given somewhat similar sounding kanji at some point (‘takushima’ 太根島), which gradually morphed into some similar kanji based on an alternate pronunciation of the aforementioned kanji (‘taikushima’ 大根島), and this was eventually misread as the pronunciation that is currently used today (‘daikonshima’ 大根島).

On of the other theories about the name origin is that it had some ties to what the island of volcanic soil is known for: ginseng! This was traded with Korea and other places back in the Edo era when Izumo province was in financial straits, and is still prized today (and easy to get your hands on).

But this post is not about ginseng, it is about flowers. The other thing Daikonshima is famous for is its peonies (‘botan’, ). The prefectural flower of Shimane, thousands upon thousands of them bloom all over the island, and they are highly prized by peony lovers all around the world. Yuushien is but a central location to see some 180 varieties in a single place, including many varieties that were cultivated on the island. There are always some kind of variety blooming on Yuushien, even in winter when the blooms are protected from the snow by little straw huts. For a few days during Golden Week, however, the pond is filled with over 30,000 blossoms. That’s only a fraction of all the blossoms within the garden at that time, much less within the entire island! As soon as you step into the garden, you might even notice the fragrance before the actual sight. Kudos to anyone who knows what I mean when I say I half-expected to meet Liu Mengmei! Peonies originally came to Japan from China, they just thrived and developed extremely well on this island. As it turns out, there is a Chinese style garden elsewhere on Daikonshima.

Besides vendors selling their own cultivated peonies all over the island during the Peony Festival, there is also an exhibition during this particular period of time, and you can use your garden admission ticket to vote for your favorite cleverly titled variety on display (by the way, foreign visitors get half-off admission to the garden all year round for only 300 yen).

“Old Mountain Lady”, but I wonder which one?

Without further ado, how about we just move on to a sampling of pictures?

Striped varieties were originally cultivated on Daikonshima.

Peonies are huge. Many blossoms seemed to be about the size of my head.

Yellow varieties are not as common, but there were plenty to be seen anyway.

True cherry blossoms season–when the air is filled with thousands and thousands of soft white petals–may be considered over, but other varieties kept on blooming for weeks thereafter. Here is another handful, though still a mere sample of the wide varieties just planted here around Matsue–and probably the last ones I’ll be posting about for this year! After all, I’m so late with this final post that we’ve run clear into other flower seasons (new flowers coming soon, I promise). These ones are all from Suetsugu Park, like the last bunch I introduced.


“Ichihara Tora-no-O” (Ichihara Tiger’s Tail)

“Itokukuri”, similar to the Fukurokuju below.

“Fukurokuju”, named after the Lucky God of Happiness, Wealth and Long Life (see below).

“Gyoikou” or “Gioiko”, the most unique variety I’ve seen. They are a pale green, and their pink stripes appear as they mature. They have some fragrance, too!

The height of someiyoshino cherry blossom season is about over, but there are other varieties of cherry blossoms that bloom a little later. A number of them are in Suetsugu Park, right by Matsue City Hall, so I took a windy lunch break to go take a look.

This type is called Goza-no-ma-nioi, which I’d roughly translate as “the scent of sitting”. That said, I didn’t detect much fragrance, but the bunched blossoms are neat.

Eigenji: pillowy white blossoms, still not much fragrance.

Fugenzou: large, multi-layered blossoms. Still not much fragrance.

At last, I found a couple of very fragrant trees! While there were slight differences in their scent, they both smelled like cherries (which makes sense). Other varieties that I detected fragrance from didn’t strike me as having such a pleasant, fruity smell, so I rather enjoyed these.

I’m not sure what these white ones are called, but I liked them anyway.

Rather large and fluffy petals.

A very pale pink, if you’re looking for it in the younger blossoms.

Out of all the types of cherry blossoms I’ve seen, (I don’t have pictures of them all–there are still more blossom types all over town), I’ve decided youkihi are my favorite. They have more petals, more color, and more fragrance than many others. This is, however, only personal sentiment–cherry blossoms are appreciated for more than these attributes, and the someiyoshino can’t be topped when it comes to the beauty of scattering petals. That’s okay, the youkihi are still around to enjoy one they’re gone!

When I got back to the office after lunch, I found some sakura mochi left on my desk, as someone had brought them to distribute around the office. I’ve been seeing them here and there since February (a little early, but better early than late so as to foretell the coming of the season!).

Basically, they are a soft, thin, lightly flavored mochi (pounded rice) sort of pancake filled with sweet, smooth azuki bean paste, and held together by a cooked, salty leaf. It’s okay to eat them with or without the leaf.

Full bloom cherry blossom viewing photos here and here, while other varieties are here.